In favour of doubt

JP Rangaswami writes about doubts and uncertainties. In short he’s in favour of them, as am I. He quotes Ben Franklin:

In fact, if you wish to instruct others, a positive dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may occasion opposition and prevent a candid attention

This reminds me of what Rock and Schwartz describe happening when we actually gain insights, which I wrote about here.

For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala.

Second, neural networks are influenced moment to moment by genes, experiences, and varying patterns of attention. Although all people have some broad functions in common, in truth everyone has a unique brain architecture. Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking. It is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights.

It also connects with Ellen Langer’s explanation in Mindful Learning (which I summarised here) that writing textbooks conditionally rather than definitively is more likely to support active learning of the material. I find that many business and self-help books don’t heed this wisdom, tending towards absolutist lists of the 7 secrets and 5 steps blah blah blah. There’s a kind of curse of certainty in many writings promoting excellence of various kinds.

There’s a malaise in conversations where we appear too certain about things that deep down we’re attached to but not truly sure about; and sometimes correspondingly slippery about some things we are pretty sure of but don’t like to talk about (in particular about our feelings about some situations).

I don’t want this to sound too pious, as I am the author of many rants that clearly illustrate my own failings in this regard. But I think we might all take a leaf from David Weinberger’s excellent distinction between ? and !.

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